The TRUTH. Dead, Buried and Cremated

By Mike Welsh

democary pic

They say one mustn’t speak ill of the dead. They also say if you don’t have anything good to say about somebody, don’t say anything at all. Two golden rules.

All very well, but what if there is no choice? What if something has to be said about someone about whom there is nothing approaching good to be said?

I was asked to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of Betty, an eighty-something listener to my Canberra radio program.

“Slightly creepy,” I thought, “Surely there is someone who knows her much better than I?”

I’d only known Betty  for a couple of years, but the sad reality was no one else, not one single family member/friend/neighbour/creditor was prepared to speak at her funeral service. So I accepted the odd invitation from a niece to say a “few words about Betty.” I guess I felt sorry for the crusty old bastard. For some strange reason, I liked her.

Betty was unforgiving and just a plain nasty piece of work – there was no argument on that score. To get on her wrong side was a massive mistake. She had a memory (and a hide) like an elephant, and carried around trunks of baggage a dozen house cats couldn’t carry. She had a mouth that would put Billy Connolly to shame and a glare that could curdle milk. To my knowledge she didn’t have children or any living siblings. It was entirely possible that her cruel nature had driven many of those close to her away…forever.

Betty was true to form in death as in life. She was not someone who would want to be eulogised in the true sense of the word. It had to be the truth or nothing. She’ll never know just how close it came to the latter. So, it was down to me to deliver the truth, “the whole f****** truth”, as she was often wont to say. Betty’s foul tongue was the major reason she was barred from the Sydney talkback radio stations she relentlessly called from the Formica-dominated kitchen of her 1950s public housing digs in suburban Canberra. She “called in” mostly late at night and sometimes into the early morning. She did have a rule though — never call after 4 am.

With Golden rules 1 and 2 dead and buried, I had little choice but to go for broke prior at Betty’s cremation and have a red hot crack at the truth. As my old mate Voltaire would have it, “We owe the dead only truth.”

But how far should I go with the truth?

The best and most positive thing I could say about Betty was that she was a “hard case”. Hard as a goat’s knee. I knew that from the moment I met her. Should I share that meeting with the small band of “mourners” who had, for whatever reason, made the effort?

In fact, I had heard her before I met her. She had been hospitalised after a “fall” and I decided to visit. I heard the unmistakable Betty barge; a raspy voice fashioned from years of smoking, giving a nurse a frightful gobfull before I turned the corner.  The nurse’s sin: forbidding Betty from smoking in the wards.  She was a fearsome sight. A very lived-in face. Bruised with bits of bark off it from the “fall”. Betty had many “falls”, often when she was pissed.

I could have opened with the yarn of Betty hitting the jackpot on the pokies at her local club, which she would drive to and from, often pissed, in her trusty old gold Toyota that hadn’t been registered since Bob Hawke lived in Canberra. When word of the win got around, the line of her creditors stretched around the block. After reimbursing a few of the fortunate ones at the head of the queue, she began to flay her walking stick around, security was called and the payout was terminated. Permanently.

Betty had many topics she would ring the radio station and lecture…from the firm belief that the contraceptive pill made women savage, to the uprising of the Mau Mau in Kenya, to the Albury Railway station having the longest platform in the southern hemisphere.

And she loved the horses; she would ring and give me tips AFTER they’d won.

What Betty was best known for was telling the same jokes with the same expletive laden punchlines, which I always had to “DUMP”.

Same format every time.

Betty: I’ve got a joke for you Mike

Me: Hope it’s clean Betty

Betty (ignoring the warning): Did you hear the one about little Johnny who was asked by his teacher why he missed school the previous day?

Me: Yes you told that one last week

Betty (ignoring me again): He told the teacher he couldn’t come to school because his grandfather was burnt.  His teacher said “Oh my goodness Johnny, was he burnt badly?” And little Johnny said well Miss, they kinda don’t f*** around at the Crematorium

I eventually went with my “first face to bruised face” encounter with Betty at the hospital as a eulogy and it seemed to go down well with the meagre gathering as an accurate account of the life and times of Betty.

As the conveyer belt bearing the coffin containing the body of Betty shuddered into action, ferrying her the last few metres through the curtains and into the inferno, I wished I’d gone with the cremation gag.

Betty would have loved that.

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Jennifer

 

By Mike Welsh

Jennifer was killed near my place a few years ago. While I’m not sure exactly when and how she died, I do know she is sorely missed, at least by her mother. It is clear she perished after a vehicle left the road and hit a large tree.  Apart from that I know that her mother wants her memory to live on.

How do I know about Jennifer?  There is a bright and uncluttered roadside memorial attached to a large tree just around the corner from my place.

I wasn’t aware the memorial was dedicated to Jennifer until recently. The tribute to Jennifer is always simple and fresh and unavoidable. Flowers and messages mainly. But today I couldn’t avoid the large, personal sign which appeared.

roadside memorial

 I’ve conducted several interviews on my radio program with the  authors of books on the subject of Roadside memorials.    Apparently there are scores of books available on the topic,  mostly filled with poignant pictures of wooden crosses on the  sides of highways from all around the world. Although in some  parts of the world tributes are distinctly different. In Ireland for  example you’ll see actual headstones or piles of rock with a  cross atop. In Canada they are more organised. The  government pays for a bunch of crosses with the deceased  person’s name and a road safety message included.

It’s almost impossible to drive by a roadside memorial without  giving some thought to what you see. There’s no  confusion.    But there is always, to someone, a tragic story  attached.

Is it sobering and upsetting if there’s a cuddly toy and photo frame featuring a child in amongst the flowers and candles?  A child perished at that spot.

Often when a teenager dies in a car smash their peers shower a makeshift memorial site with all manner of items.  Cans of alcohol, footy caps and scarves, graffiti. They have few other ways of dealing with the loss. These mostly fade with the months and years. Others are meant to be permanent.

I’ve often wondered as I pass the tribute near my place whether the extensive maintenance undertaken to keep the memorial alive actually helps the family left behind deal with its loss. Is it none of my business? Was it disrespectful of me to take and publish a photo of Jennifer’s site?

Some experts in the field of grief and loss suggest the concept of roadside memorials is more about those who are, or wish to be, unconventional. Church and graveyard displays are the traditional manner in which to remember the departed.

And while from a practical viewpoint, local governments   grapple with this sensitive issue, it seems there are those who find the concept of roadside memorials distasteful and even offensive.

The Separation of Church and State issue, surprisingly, rears its boofhead. Because most sites include a cross, a universal sign of death and loss, this automatically also means Christianity and that, for some, just won’t do.  This was the basis for a change of the law in the state of Florida in the late 90s.

It’s also distressing to learn of in incident in Portland, Oregon several years ago. Somebody decided it was ok to compact the grief of a family by erecting signs featuring black crosses with a red slash though them. The Black Prince’s calling card “666” was tossed in for greater effect. Not to mention memorials ripped out only to be replaced, time and time again by grieving relatives.

And of course there is always the old chestnut about the distraction sites create for passing motorists.

But all I can think of at this time of year is Jennifer’s mother and her grief and another Christmas they won’t share.